6 Spices and Herbs You Should Be Using

From the WebMD Archives

There’s a whole world of herbs and spices that you might not know about yet. They're easy to find and can help you liven up your food, especially if you're cutting back on salt, fat, or sugar. And that could help your waistline, blood pressure, and overall health.

Put these six herbs and spices on your list to try.

Saigon cinnamon is a key ingredient in the popular Vietnamese noodle soup called pho.

1. Smoked Serrano Chili Powder

Serrano chili peppers are known for their bold, spicy heat. You can find serrano chilies that are smoked and ground into a fragrant powder.

How it improves dishes: Smoked serrano chili powder adds a rich, smoky flavor and lively heat to your favorite dishes, including a variety of Mexican and Southwestern dishes, stews, casseroles, egg dishes, and chili.

2. Turmeric

Turmeric is the root stalk of a tropical plant in the ginger family. It adds a bright golden color and a pungent flavor that's found in everything from Indian curry powder to traditional American mustard.

How it improves dishes: You can add turmeric to Southeast Asian recipes, including curries, soups, pilafs, rice dishes; and vegetable, chicken, or lentil dishes. Also, use it to add punch to relishes and chutneys.

3. Saigon Cinnamon

Saigon cinnamon, prized for its sweet and spicy taste and aroma, is considered the finest and most flavorful cinnamon in the world.

How it improves dishes: Cinnamon is an old favorite called for in fancy coffee drinks, hot oatmeal, cookies, and fruit crisps. It's also a popular spice for main dishes (including chicken, seafood, and lamb) from international cuisines such as Indian, Greek, Mexican, and Middle Eastern. Saigon cinnamon is a key ingredient in the popular Vietnamese noodle soup called pho.

4. Vanilla Paste

Vanilla extract is common in dessert recipes. But the next generation of recipes might start calling for vanilla paste instead. Vanilla paste beats vanilla extract because it has flavorful flecks of vanilla bean.

Vanilla paste has the same benefits that come from using the actual vanilla bean, when you cut the long, thin bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the center. But it is so much easier to use, and it has a more concentrated flavor than the extract.

How it improves dishes: The flecks of vanilla bean can be particularly appetizing when used in single-color dishes such as ice cream, sugar cookies, and vanilla frosting.

5. Epazote

Although this is a relatively new herb to many American cooks, epazote has been used in Mexico for cooking and for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.

In Mexico, epazote is best known for flavoring bean dishes and making herb tea. One new use suggested by the Spice Islands Marketplace is to drizzle some olive oil on top of flat bread and sprinkle epazote over the top. Then heat and serve.

How it improves dishes: Epazote has a powerful flavor similar to licorice. You can use it in bean dishes as well as eggs, burritos, rice, soups, stews, salads, quesadillas, and meat dishes. It's also known for helping curb the gas-inducing effect of beans.

6. Herbes de Provence

Herbes de Provence (also called Herbs of Provence) is a blend of five or six herbs reminiscent of France's sunny Provence region. The herbs included in the blend vary by brand but usually include thyme, basil, savory, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, or lavender.

How it improves dishes: This sweet and fragrant aromatic herb blend adds depth and complexity to your hot dishes. You can use it as a rub on roasts, meats, and fish. It's also great on grilled food. You can add it to marinades or sprinkled into sautés, omelets, vegetable dishes, sauces, and soups.

Tips for Buying, Using, and Storing Dried Herbs

If your grocery store doesn't stock these spices or herbs, search for them online.

Store dried herbs in a cool, dark place, especially if they come in a clear glass container.

If a recipe calls for fresh herbs and you're using dried instead, use about 1/3 less. If the recipe calls for a tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs, a teaspoon of dried herbs will do.

But dried herbs lose flavor over time. If stored correctly, they will last about a year. Sniff the herbs before you use them. If you can't smell anything, they're past their prime.

WebMD Feature



Culinary Institute of America, Spice Islands Marketplace, St. Helena, CA.

Kaefer, C. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, June 2008.

Akilen, R. Diabetic Medicine, October 2010.

Geil, P. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2008.

Winston, C. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 1997.

American Institute for Cancer Research: “Research On Your Plate -- Herbs Make Food Happy and Healthy,” “Research On Your Plate -- Wake Up Springtime Meals With Herbs.”

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